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How your stressful commute affects your health — and strategies to stay sane

The traffic jams, rude straphangers and train delays take a toll on our mental and physical health. Here are some tried-and-true coping strategies from other commuters who feel your pain.
Commuters Face Daily Challenge Of Getting To Work In Latin America's 2nd Largest City
Commuters can experience a variety of symptoms including racing heart, sweating, anxiety and irritability, that can have lasting affects on our mental health. Christian Rodriguez / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Diana Hernandez's morning commute from East Rutherford, New Jersey to Times Square was so stressful, she actually moved back to her home state of Florida. "It took 90 minutes to get 8 miles," she says. The 38-year old marketing professional started having anxiety attacks because of the unavoidable situations that constantly arose during her commute.

"I've been sat on before, smacked in the face with backpacks, butts shoved in my face every day if I was sitting in an aisle seat," she says. "One man almost started a fist fight with me when I asked him to please turn down his music." In the winter, her bus driver would crank the heat up, which made the experience even more unbearable. "We were packed like sardines and wearing winter coats," she says.

Though Jami Macklin, 31, didn't have to deal with the stress of sharing close quarters with others during her long commute from Baltimore, Maryland to Tysons Corner, Virginia, the unpredictability of traffic brought on a different kind of stress. "My commute could take anywhere from an hour and fifteen minutes to two hours," she says. "I missed out on plenty of family dinners, and it affected my willingness to travel on the weekends."

The health impact of a stressful commute

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, over 150 million people commute to work by car; approximately 7.6 million commuters rely on public transportation. But no matter what mode of transportation you choose, commuting comes with a long list of potential stressors — many of which are out of our immediate control.

According to the U.S. Census bureau, over 150 million people commute to work by car; approximately 7.6 million commuters rely on public transportation.

"External stressors include traffic, noise, the behaviors of other commuters, and unexpected events (such as traffic delays)," says Carla Manly, a clinical psychologist practicing in California. These stressors can have a ripple effect if an unexpected train delay or traffic jam means you'll be late to your morning meeting or to pick up the kids, or have to potentially miss whatever's on the schedule for your evening.

When these events happen during our commute, our stress hormones are triggered. "In the short-term, commuters can experience a variety of symptoms including racing heart, sweating, anxiety and irritability," says Manly. "Mood changes are also common as a result of a stressful commute, and chronic shifts from a positive state to a negative state can actually hard wire the brain to respond more negatively over time."

Long-term effects of dealing with a stressful commute can be significant, including depression, ongoing anxiety, and a dread of the commute cycle. "Research proves that ongoing stress is detrimental to overall physical and psychological health," says Manly. "From a negative impact on sleep, eating behaviors and heart health to decreased enjoyment of interpersonal relationships, a chronically stressful commute can certainly have a wide variety of negative effects in the long term."

Tips for staying sane during your commute

You can't control the flow of traffic or whether or not the person seated next you feels like blasting death metal at 7 a.m. But there are steps you can take to bring your stress levels down. Here are a few tried-and-true tips for making your commute more bearable.

1. Call and connect with others

Studies conducted by the University of Chicago found that striking up a conversation with others during a commute made it a more positive experience. Jennifer Douglas, Ph.D., clinical assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine says utilizing this time to connect with people in your life, whether via phone call, text or email can have a similar positive effect. "Get in touch with the old friend from college, your aunt you’ve been meaning to call for her birthday, or even your spouse if you’re both commuting and don’t have time to connect," she says.

At the very least, use them as an outlet to vent — and maybe even find the humor in some of your encounters. During her commute, Hernandez used Snapchat to capture some of the most bizarre situations she witnessed and sent them to her friends, which she said helped make the experience more tolerable.

2. Let go of negative feelings

If your inner monologue during your commute is one that you'd be embarrassed to have your grandmother overhear, you're not doing yourself any favors. "Feelings like anger and frustration don’t make the commute any shorter, but they do make us arrive at our destination in a frazzled, irritable state," says Manly. "So, it’s really beneficial to choose positive thoughts in order to hard wire your brain into a more commute-friendly space."

Benny To, a 26-year-old public relations professional in California whose commute from San Gabriel Valley to Santa Monica can take up to two hours each way, says this has been instrumental for lowering his stress levels. "Sitting in traffic is a great way to disconnect from the world and relax," he says. "I used to be so worked up by traffic — although I still am sometimes when my ETA is 2 hours — but now I’ve learned to just accept it. I kick on my Google Maps in case I need to detour, and mindlessly drive home."

3. Listen to a podcast or audiobook

Music has plenty of stress relieving benefits, but if you want to detach yourself from the stressful situation at hand, opt for something you can fully immerse yourself in. "When we put our focus onto a positive or interesting message or story, our attention is taken away from the negative elements of the commute," says Manly. You may be surprised how fast an engaging podcast or audiobook can pass the time. Dare we say it, you may even look forward to your commute so you can listen to the next chapter or episode. If you're commuting by train or bus, getting lost in a good book can also help.

4. Don't get hangry

Whatever stressful situation your commute throws your way is going to be amplified on an empty stomach. "The last thing we need is to artificially fire our adrenaline and activate our own stress response because we haven't eaten breakfast and are all hopped up on caffeine," says Teralyn Sell, Ph.D., a psychotherapist in Wisconsin. Sell recommends eating breakfast before your commute, holding off until after you've eaten to have that first cup of coffee, and having healthy snacks on hand in case your commute has you arriving home to dinner much later than you expected.

5. Practice gratitude

Instead of focusing on the unpleasant parts of your commute, reminding yourself why you're doing this can decrease your stress levels. "For example, focusing on the financial benefits of being able to pay rent, mortgage or save for a child’s college can be helpful," says Manly. "It can be uplifting to remember that your work efforts bring food to the table or heat into your home. The commute can seem much more worthwhile when you think of the vacation you were able to take or the one that might be just ahead. Stress tends to melt away when we turn our thoughts to what we are grateful for in life, rather than focusing on the negative or challenging aspects."

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